My father died two months before my son was born. Intended, but unexpected. We got a call from the neighbor — he was in his truck, sick from carbon monoxide, and the ambulance was on its way.
I went to the bathroom and washed my hair. Kneeling beside the tub, head upside down under the faucet. Water rushing, rushing, down and over, down and over — white noise, blocking everything. Water for scrubbing and cleaning. Water for hiding. Water for controlling.
That day at the hospital would be the first of 18 we spent at my father’s bedside in the ICU. Until — finally, mercifully — what he’d set out to do was done.
Elena, the soon-to-be big sister, was the first grandchild. Before she was born, my father announced that his grandchildren would call him “Johnny.” To which my mother replied: What kind of bullshit is that?
A protest my dad masterfully re-structured by nicknaming my mom “Tootsie.” Explaining to her that, without an equally badass name to match, she’d be left in the dust of grandparent fandom. I’ll be Johnny, and you’ll be Grandma? That’s really what you want? Can we rob banks like that? Can we start a blues band like that? No, Audrey. No, we can’t.
For the 3+ years of my daughter’s life that he was alive, Johnny was a fantastic grandfather. From the night she was born, until the morning he hid — one final time — behind the big tree, hoo-hoo-ing like an owl and waiting for Elena to find him, he loved her with a warm and joyful reverence I’m certain she’ll always know.
He was the kind of grandfather every kid should have. Tender, wise, generous, funny. He patiently introduced Elena to all of the things that he loved — the blues, documentaries, gardening, reading, eating gum drops. And, of course, he adopted the things that she loved — Dora the Explorer, Polly Pockets, rocks, bugs.
All of Johnny’s grandchildren were destined to be wild about him. Destined to receive his manila envelopes of carefully curated articles in the mail, the must-read parts underlined in red. Destined to late nights of conversation, to sunset scotch patrols, to every gift a book.
Destined, until — suddenly and terribly — it would only ever be the first grandchild who knew him, was hugged by him, held by him, laughed with him, learned from him, danced with him.
To lose him was a cruel introduction to the arbitrary and sometimes ruthlessness of life. To know that my baby, still floating in an ethereal and internal salty sea, would never know him — not in the cadence of his voice, not in the strumming of his guitar, not in the warmth of fingers interlaced, not of this earth, never — was a head-spinning plot twist. A wet and heavy layer of loss draped across the whole of it.
The last two months of my pregnancy are a soggy blur of remembering and forgetting — remembering that my dad was gone, forgetting that I was pregnant. One day, a few weeks out from the due date, a good friend gave me a simple directive: go to the baby’s room and get it ready.
And so I did what I’d carefully avoided doing: on the cool and hard floor, I opened boxes of tiny socks and tiny onesies and tiny diapers. And I wept. Unrelenting, unchecked, unpacking. A crib. A bookcase. An elephant decal carefully pressed on freshly painted walls. The room, anticipating. Me, expecting. The baby would still come. No matter the pieces of me apart, no matter my heart on fire in a dark and raging vigil — no matter, no matter. The baby would still come.
On the day my father’s grandson was born, his absence was a shadow cast everywhere in the room — in the corners, on the floor, across my mother’s face. And in my arms. Where John Cormac Spencer, 7 pounds and 2 ounces of clenched-fist fight, searched for my eyes. Murky. Stunned. In love. Both of us.
We went home to begin again with a baby boy. Weeks passed. Months. Crawling turned to walking. Babble to language. Language to understanding. Understanding to questions. And nearly nine years gone now.
Without thinking about should or shouldn’t, right or wrong, psychology or style, we do what we know how to do, the only thing we can do: we tell Mac about Johnny. Not in one long litany, not as an emotionless history. In memory and in story, whenever and however, we let it come.
We tell Mac:
Johnny always wanted to have a big garden. He had all the enthusiasm and none of the whimsy. He once asked me to plant the onion starters, and when I was done, he dug them all up and replanted each one, using a ruler, exactly 6 inches apart. He was a bit of a perfectionist, just like you.
Johnny was a bluesman, and he played the guitar. If we complained or whined, he’d make up a song about our woes: Audrey’s got the dish-doing blues. Autumn’s got the grounded-again blues. Joshie’s got the dog-walking blues. He would have made up songs for you too: Mac’s got the poppy-diaper blues.
Before Tootsie was Tootsie, Johnny called her O.J., or Audgie, or Babe. Johnny to dance with Tootsie in the living room, and he was a great dancer. He would have loved your dance moves.
Johnny used to make Uncle Joshie and his friends do crazy-hard labor whenever they came to visit. He made them stack wood, and unstack wood, and re-stack wood. He made them move giant rocks. Johnny insisted Uncle Joshie and his friends do all of that. And can you believe all those guys would still come back to visit again and again? He would have put you to work with them, too.
He loved movies. Top Gun is a ridiculous story about two mischievous, prank-pulling pilots. It was Johnny’s favorite movie and, for reasons we still don’t understand, he could never get enough Maverick and Goose. He made us watch it with him repeatedly. Sorta like you and The Lego Movie.
Johnny would bring the whole bag of pretzels into the living room to watch TV with Toots. And then, just as the show would start, he’d open the crinkly bag as painstakingly slowly as he could until, finally, Tootsie would say: Jesus Christ, John. Just open the bag already!
Johnny and our family friend once put on an impromptu skit about being two gringos on a bus to Mexico. They wrapped themselves in blankets, wore hats, and put white cream on their noses like sunscreen. We laughed so hard we snorted, and cried, and peed our pants. You would’ve been rolling on the floor, it was so funny. And, Mac, your laughter would’ve made Johnny so happy.
Do you know that Johnny made us watch a 30 minute how-to video about his new weed-whacker? We still have it, if you feel like you missed out.
Johnny is the only guy on the planet who actually read the entire owner’s manual for his new desktop computer. Can you imagine? He could’ve really used your engineering, hands-on brain.
Just before Daddy and I were married, Johnny went into the empty church and sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. Some years later, he bought a documentary about the long history of that song, and insisted we all watch it together — even your sister, and she was only 2.
And on, and on, and so on.
Johnny is not all absent from Mac’s life, or any of our lives. Mac is very much like his grandfather — studious, self-starting, sentimental, discerning, comedic, convincing, a little jaunty. Yes, some of this is nature. But some is nurture. Mac’s own experiences have been nourished by a man he’s never met.
Mac has drawn and cartooned and written his way through reams of paper and into sketchbooks delivered by Santa or purchased with allowance. He’ll lose himself in the plot lines of his yarn, and in the pursuit of a flawlessly drawn jet. Head-down at the dining room table, hour after hour. Looking like Johnny in profile, echoing him in focus.
He’s written several short stories — about a cat named Adventure, a mastermind called Ida, and an unlikely and lovable hero, The Awesome Idiot. He recently read all 8 chapters and 24 pages of his latest work out loud, in the backyard, standing directly in front of me, our faces barely two feet apart.
How often I read my own stories to Johnny in exactly this way. Johnny, who would love my ideas, would love my punch-punch-punching the keys on the typewriter he’d gleefully given me. Johnny, who would listen patiently to the endless details of my angsty poetry, my righteous diatribes, my predictably cliché fables.
I try to listen to Mac’s stories as my father did mine, although I am much more easily distracted, and my patience is a never-ending struggle. And I try to tell him Johnny’s stories — so that he will always know him, always claim him as his own. His namesake, his grandfather.
We can do this, all of us who’ve lost the ones we wanted so badly to stay. We can keep them alive, we can give them shape and voice, we can introduce them to our children, and can carry them in our stories.
Johnny is very much alive — in mind, in love, in context.
When Mac was finished reading the last page of his novella — a long and winding tale of an unsuspecting dragon outsmarted by an always scheming secret agent cat and his generally dumbfounded owner — he looked up to see me watching him. Maybe guessing at the glassiness of my eyes, or maybe because he knew it to be absolutely true, he smiled broadly and said:
Johnny woulda really liked this story.